Ukraine: 21st Century Verdun
What's worth what to whom in this fight?
The frontlines in Ukraine have barely moved for months now. That doesn’t mean nothing is happening — far from it. Conflict rages every day over the same ruined land and men are thrown into a well-constructed meat grinder on both sides as part of a strategy of attrition.
Attrition warfare is what happens when maneuver becomes impossible, and it’s more like two fighters grappling to submission rather than using striking blows to knock each other out. As of this writing, Russia has claimed victory in the battle of Bakhmut, the longest and bloodiest battle of the 21st century so far (knock on wood).
Wars of attrition are comfy for bean-counters, turkey-necks, politicians, bankers, or any combination thereof. As opposed to wars of broad strokes, bold maneuvers, and unpredictable outcomes, wars of attrition can be understood by those away from the front lines with spreadsheets, requisition forms, bureaucratic decrees, and a hell of a lot of money.
That “money” part is what we’re here to talk about today — or perhaps “cost” would be a more appropriate term. But we need some background. For there to be a cost to something, it must have value. So what value does the war offer to whom, and at what cost?
I’m not going to get into full bean-counter mode, because it offends my sensibilities. In particular, it’s tragic that the value of currency and materiel has been placed over that of the lives of people — especially the men sent to battle. Of course, this is far from the first time such a value exchange has happened.
You may have heard of the war in Ukraine being described as a World War One-style war. That’s partially true. But that war did indeed have broad strokes at some points, as well as brutal, grinding artillery churns into which nations foolishly threw the flower of their youth. So, let’s get more specific.
Verdun: Attrition and Mission Creep
“Verdun: The World Bloodpump 1916 German propaganda medal” By Johnbod - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36679795
There is no better example of calculated attrition than the First World War’s Battle of Verdun. What became the longest and bloodiest battle of the war was specifically designed to “bleed France white,” as described by the newly-appointed German Field Marshal Erich von Falkenhayn in February, 1916. After a year and a half of stalemate, it had become clear that the war of maneuver had come to an end despite all attempts at breakthroughs. So, the German strategy was changed to inflict as many casualties as possible on France and thus reduce its manpower.
The war goal never changed, but the strategy did. The ultimate German goal was simple: force France to surrender so it could concentrate on its other fronts. The French goal was to expel Germany from its soil, force its surrender, and reclaim Alsace-Lorraine, which Germany had seized in 1871.
The German strategy backfired, though, and ended up causing an extremely costly stalemate for both sides. Originally, the German plan was to choose a place of strategic and emotional importance to France — to force them to defend as a linchpin for morale. But doing so made it also an emotional sticking point for Germany, and thus neither power backed down for a solid ten months. In the end, hundreds of thousands of men on each side had lost their lives, and much of the area is still off-limits today because of how much unexploded ordnance remains underground.
Both World War 1 and Verdun are textbook examples of mission creep. What starts as something seemingly simple gets way out of hand, irrational thinking takes hold, and leaders fall prey to a number of logical fallacies. One such fallacy on display throughout the conflict was the Sunk Cost Fallacy: Leaders of all nations could say, “We can’t stop fighting now — do we want our comrades’ deaths to have been in vain?”
In hindsight, it simply looks like madness.
Yet I suspect that if you were to ask the slain of Verdun from either side, or their mourning relatives, or their never-born children if their deaths to defend a hill were worth it, the reply would be a resounding “No.”
There was no glory to be had. Many of the slain died anonymously in some muddy hole. Each nation heaped patriotism, righteous anger, and promised honor upon its soldiers to encourage their sacrifice — which seems heartbreakingly short-sighted and wasteful now. That hill was quite literally not worth dying on. Many, including myself, view the entire First World War as an enormous, foolish mistake that demonstrated the worst of human nature and foreign policy.
But here we are again making the same mistakes. By “we,” I mean the human species.
Stated vs Implied War Goals
What we’re seeing now in Ukraine is that same attrition strategy from Verdun played out between NATO and Russia — but with more focus on an economic war of attrition than one of manpower. NATO clearly doesn’t care about the lives of its Ukrainian proxy soldiers, and the stated war goals of both NATO and Ukraine don’t match their actions.
Make no mistake: This is a NATO-Russia fight, paid for with the blood of Ukrainian soldiers and the treasure of NATO countries, notably the US. For those who have been paying attention, this is not news. For those merely glancing at or ignoring the news, this point may be more controversial.
But let’s examine war goals here, considering three players: Russia, Ukraine, and NATO. Let’s consider stated and implied war goals for each. Yes, these are my opinions.
Russian Stated War Goal(s): Ensure protection for Russian ethnic minority in eastern Ukraine; “Demilitarize” and “Denazify” Ukraine; Prevent NATO expansion to Ukraine; Ensure Ukrainian neutrality
Russian Implied War Goal(s): Attrite Ukrainian military and Western equipment; Bolster border security; Ensure a land bridge to Crimea; Set the stage for possible future expansion to the Bessarabian Gap and Polish Gap; Deny NATO access to Ukraine; Push back on NATO expansion; Challenge American hegemony, including the reserve currency status of the Dollar
Ukrainian Stated War Goal(s): Expel Russia from occupied territory; Reclaim Crimea
Ukrainian Implied War Goal(s): Officially join NATO; Join economic union with Europe; Reject Russian influence; Subdue breakaway provinces in the resource- and industry-heavy Donbass
NATO Stated War Goal(s): Expel Russia from occupied territory; Reclaim Crimea
NATO Implied War Goal(s): Attrite Russian economy and military to weaken it as a rival; Contain Russian expansion; Regime change in Russia; Breakup of Russian centralized power; Gain unfettered access to Russian raw materials; Continuation of Post-WW2 Western dominance
Ask yourself: Which of these goals would you be willing to die for? Which would you be willing to send your son or relative to die for? Which would you be willing to send someone else’s son to die for? If you’re from a NATO country, how much do any of these goals really matter to you? Just who should die on what hill?
The Ukrainian Bloodground: Money for Nothing
How long until we consider this to be madness, too?
Let’s hop back to the “cost” part noted towards the beginning of this article. The US and its NATO allies have sent an eye-watering amount of money and resources to Ukraine. Cash, ammunition, weapon systems, training, and so on — it’s been shipped over in vast hordes, and the flood isn’t stopping. The drum beats for F-16 fighters are beating ever louder as President Biden is now allowing allies to supply the fighters to Ukraine.
The US sent well north of $110 billion to Ukraine in 2022, of which around $70 billion was in military funding. That matches Russia’s military spending, and other NATO members are sending more. And hey, just for fun, the Pentagon can’t account for $220 billion worth of equipment. That’s 3x Russia’s annual military budget. And despite claims that Russia is running out of ammunition or equipment, well, they sure haven’t yet.
The money sent to Ukraine isn’t producing much in the way of returns and the equipment is quickly being eroded. For example, a battery of the much-vaunted Patriot missile defense system was just recently damaged or destroyed, depending on who you listen to. Funny enough, Ukraine still denies it, while the US confirms it. That system was delivered at the end of December 2022 at the cost of a cool $1 billion. The rockets also cost money: An entire battery of rockets goes for around $150 million, and that can be fired in just a couple of minutes. That’s a seriously impressive cash burn rate.
Yet still, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell says that fighting Russia in Ukraine is American Republicans’ #1 policy. McConnell also calls supplying Ukraine with arms a direct investment in American interests.
That’s a bit odd, isn’t it? What exactly has been gained?
“Has been gained,” astute readers would note, is the passive voice. A good question is, “Gained by whom?” Who has benefited? Which goals have been attained by the draining of arsenals and treasuries — and by the loss of life and limb of Ukrainian and Russian soldiers?
Clearly, the Ukrainian people and nation have not benefited. Ukraine has been largely emptied of its population. Neither Americans nor Europeans have benefited, and indeed are feeling the consequences of the backfiring sanctions. Resources are being diverted away from NATO countries in a time when the money could be much better spent at home, or perhaps on official NATO members’ defenses. Sure, defense contractors have benefited, and you could argue the tail is wagging the dog to some degree. But there’s more at play.
At this point, it’s worth asking some important, non-rhetorical questions. For example:
What would “victory” look like for NATO? What would it look like for Russia?
What is the best Ukraine can hope for now?
If “victory” means pushing Russia out of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian army is not up to the task — and it appears not to be — what is plan B?
Now that the US has formally accused Russia of Crimes Against Humanity, what could a negotiated settlement look like?
What is the future of Ukraine now that millions of people have fled the country, many of whom will never return?
With public support for the war waning and debt exploding, how long can the US feasibly keep supporting Ukraine?
I’d like to remind readers yet again that there was a good chance for peace mere months after the war began. Russia would withdraw, Ukraine would agree to neutrality, and the Donbass would see peace again. But NATO shot that down via their envoy Boris Johnson. Clearly, NATO stood to gain from continuing to back the war against Russia. But what?
NB: For anyone wondering why I’m not more critical of Russia in this particular piece, the fact that they were prepared to negotiate early on is one major reason why. The war would have been over long ago had NATO not become involved in Ukraine, which has never been a NATO member. Another reason why is that Russia is behaving exactly as expected. I suggest reading that link after this piece to understand more about Russian foreign policy and its history.
The Strategic Underpinnings of the Ukraine War
A lot of foreign policy experts should have stuck to playing Risk.
If you want to get a picture of the long-term thinking here that actually defines US policy, consider these words from an op-ed by foreign policy heavyweight Zbigniew Brzezenski entitled “A Geostrategy for Eurasia,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1997. Readers should also recall then-Senator Joe Biden was a key player in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that same year.
Europe is America's essential geopolitical bridgehead in Eurasia. America's stake in democratic Europe is enormous. Unlike America's links with Japan, NATO entrenches American political influence and military power on the Eurasian mainland. With the allied European nations still highly dependent on U.S. protection, any expansion of Europe's political scope is automatically an expansion of U.S. influence. Conversely, the United States' ability to project influence and power in Eurasia relies on close transatlantic ties.
A wider Europe and an enlarged NATO will serve the short-term and longer-term interests of U.S. policy. A larger Europe will expand the range of American influence without simultaneously creating a Europe so politically integrated that it could challenge the United States on matters of geopolitical importance, particularly in the Middle East. A politically defined Europe is also essential to Russia's assimilation into a system of global cooperation.
To further elucidate, here is a key takeaway from Brzezenski’s 1997 book The Grand Chessboard:
America's central geostrategic goal in Europe can be summed up quite simply: It is to consolidate through a more genuine transatlantic partnership the U.S. bridgehead on the Eurasian continent so that an enlarging Europe can become a more viable springboard for projecting into Eurasia the international democratic and cooperative order.
So, to be clear: Maintaining a strong American presence in Europe is all about influence and power. It is naked imperial ambition. The pfaff about protecting democracy or human rights is just a cover, like always. You can replace “international democratic and cooperative order” with “The Empire” and it fits just fine.
But what does the US want out of Russia, and what does Ukraine have to do with it?
As Brzezenski continued in his Foreign Affairs op-ed,
Russia's first priority should be to modernize itself rather than to engage in a futile effort to regain its status as a global power. Given the country's size and diversity, a decentralized political system and free-market economics would be most likely to unleash the creative potential of the Russian people and Russia's vast natural resources. A loosely confederated Russia — composed of a European Russia, a Siberian Republic, and a Far Eastern Republic — would also find it easier to cultivate closer economic relations with its neighbors. Each of the confederated entitles would be able to tap its local creative potential, stifled for centuries by Moscow's heavy bureaucratic hand. In turn, a decentralized Russia would be less susceptible to imperial mobilization.
Russia is more likely to make a break with its imperial past if the newly independent post-Soviet states are vital and stable. Their vitality will temper any residual Russian imperial temptations. Political and economic support for the new states must be an integral part of a broader strategy for integrating Russia into a cooperative transcontinental system. A sovereign Ukraine is a critically important component of such a policy, as is support for such strategically pivotal states as Azerbaijan and Uzbekistan.
To translate: Russia should decentralize, integrate economically with the West, and essentially stop being Russia. In short, Russia as a political entity must be destroyed.
Make the images black and white and it looks just like the First World War.
The story being sold to the American and European public is far from the truth. Ukraine was set up as a trap to bleed Russia of manpower and materiel just like Verdun was set up by Germany as a trap to bleed France. The reasons are similar, as well: Germany knew France would not give up Verdun without a bitter fight, and NATO knew Russia would not let Ukraine fall into its orbit without a fight.
Recall that 14,000 Donbass residents — most of whom are ethnically Russian — died as a result of conflict with Ukraine’s government between 2014-2022. If you consider those people bait for a trap, it makes sense in a sociopathic sort of way.
To further counter the popular narrative that Russia invaded Ukraine unprovoked, consider this statement from NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Feb 2023:
The war started in 2014. And since 2014, NATO Allies have provided support to Ukraine, with training, with equipment, so the Ukrainian Armed Forces were much stronger in 2022, than they were in 2020, and 2014. And of course, that made a huge difference when President Putin decided to attack Ukraine.
Just like Verdun, however, the planned attrition seems to be backfiring. The US, especially, is throwing money into a black hole. US Federal spending is at its highest level ever while inflation and interest rates are spiking, making repayment of the mammoth US debt increasingly untenable.
Ukraine has likely been irreparably wrecked. Europe has lost access to critical resources from Russia. Like with Verdun, will the planners of this war see this as a hill worth dying on in a decade? How about a hundred years?
The scarred landscape of Verdun makes for a stark juxtaposition of peace and violence.
My prediction is this: We will see this war as an absolute waste of human life, economic resources, and national strength. For the US, it will go down in ignominy along with the wars in Vietnam, Afghanistan, Iraq, and more. For Ukraine, it could well be the nation’s swan song. And that’s the sunny prediction: The other one is that NATO soldiers officially get involved and we all go kablooie. Care for a drink?